Skin Deep: The Nautical Roots of Tattoo Culture

April 1, 2016 | By Megan Churchwell, Puget Sound Navy Museum
Editor's Note: In response to feedback from the fleet and senior enlisted leadership, the Navy announced two changes to its uniform policy, March 31, in NAVADMIN 082/16. Learn more about the changes here.

Modern tattoo culture is rooted in the nautical world. The connection between tattoos and Sailors was cemented by the Tahitian voyages of Royal Navy Captain James Cook beginning in 1768. British sailors accompanying Captain Cook marveled at the tattoos they spotted on native Tahitians. Many returned home with body art of their own. This popular form of body art quickly spread across the Atlantic to American Sailors and is now found on people from all walks of life.

By the early- to mid-19th Century, getting tattooed was very much part of maritime life for both British and American Sailors. Some Sailors doubled as amateur tattooists, staving off boredom by using India ink and ships' sail sewing needles to ink designs on fellow Sailors' arms. Early American tattooing took place aboard ships during long voyages. They carried wooden toolboxes filled with inks and supplies, allowing them to set up shop wherever and whenever they could.
"A sailor without a tattoo is like a ship without grog: not seaworthy." - 19th Century New York City Tattooist Samuel O'Reilly
Crude by today's standards, designs consisting of simple line drawings, initials, names, or nautical symbols were inked on Sailors' forearms. Furthermore, Sailors' chosen designs often reflected life on the sea. For instance, a pig on one foot and a chicken on the other is said to protect a sailor from drowning. Animals were often carried on deck in wooden pens. In a shipwreck, the floating crates washed ashore with their cargo intact, and sailors came to view the animals as a good luck charm. The clipper or full-rigged sailing ship design initially gained popularity among Sailors who had completed the perilous voyage around Cape Horn. As ocean travel became safer, the clipper came to represent a wider tribute to the sailing tradition.

During the Civil War, tattoos commemorating the historic clash between the ironclads USS Monitor and CSS Virginia made their way through both Navies, along with more general tattoos like military insignias and names of sweethearts. As newly tattooed Sailors returned home at war's end, the work of Civil War-era tattooists spread around the country.
"... I wish you could see the bodys of these old sailors. They are regular picture books, have India ink pricked all over their body. One has a snake coiled around his leg. Some have splendid done pieces of coats of arms, American flags..." - From a letter by First Class Fireman George Spencer Geer, USS Monitor, May 24, 1862.
USS Missouri (BB-63) Gunner's Mate Second Class Charles J. Hansen working on a 40mm quad machine gun mount, during the battleship's shakedown period, circa August 1944.

In World War II, wartime meant boomtime for tattoo artists. Tattooists near military bases reported that while clients continued to ask for sailing ships, anchors, and patriotic emblems, others requested images that spoke of home - banners displaying the names of girlfriends and wives surrounded by roses or hearts, pin-up girls, or images reflecting a favored hobby. Approximately 65% of World War II Sailors sported tattoos, the highest percentage of any U.S. military branch. Thousands of Sailors were inked in port towns where a simple tattoo could be had for just $3.

The patriotic link to Uncle Sam's fighting boys promoted widespread acceptance of the tattoo. Between the 1920s and the 1950s, artists perfected the bold, colorful designs of "old-school" tattoos. The era saw rapid developments in tattooing technique, equipment, colors, and safety standards. The tattooists of this period laid the foundation for the tattoo renaissance that bloomed in the 1980s and continues to this day.

Today, the Navy is faced with increasing numbers of tattooed Sailors as the popularity of tattoos in mainstream culture continues to rise. A recent survey found that 27% of U.S. military recruits already had tattoos. In the modern Navy, tattoo policy has evolved to balance personal preference with good order and discipline. The current tattoo policy is found in the U.S. Navy Uniform Regulations. 

So when people think of tattoos, they might picture a famous rock musician, a pro athlete, or a leather-clad biker. But none of them would have tattoos if not for Sailors. Today's tattoo culture and designs have their roots in centuries-old nautical traditions. Tattoos spread throughout American culture after Sailors returned from sea sporting tattoos. So, if you have a tattoo, thank a Sailor!

The Puget Sound Navy Museum in Bremerton, Washington is home to an exhibit called "Skin Deep: The Nautical Roots of Tattoo Culture," which explores the naval heritage of tattooing. The exhibit will remain open through April 2017. The museum is located at 251 First Street, Bremerton, WA, 98337 (tel: 360-479-7447) and is open Daily from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.